We often think of nations as homogeneous chunks of lands. We imagine people of Spain speaking Español and people from Germany speaking Deutsch. There is also a common misconception that the most populous countries with a variety of belief systems are more diverse in terms of languages. However, things are not the same as they seem to most of us. Factors such as colonization, migration of people, geographical isolation play an essential role in shaping the linguistic diversity of a country.
How to measure the linguistic diversity of a nation ?
Greenberg’s Linguistic Diversity Index (LDI) is an essential tool for learning about the linguistic diversity of a nation. The method relies on the probability percentage of whether or not the two randomly chosen individuals from a country’s population have different mother tongues. In simple terms, the total number of languages spoken out of the entire population of a nation.
Primary reasons for the diversity of languages?
There are several factors, including history and population size, which play an essential role in expanding the diversity of languages in a country. Additionally, LDI rankings of different nations suggest that archipelagos or island nations are more linguistically diverse in comparison with the isolated countries.
For instance, Indonesia was located on a cultural crossroads for centuries. Consequentially, the archipelago was influenced by the cultures of several empires, which resulted in the adoption of some of their languages by the people of the nation as their own. Over the years, each isle in the archipelago developed a different language of its own, attributing to the lack of communication with the other islands. As per historical records, modern humans arrived in the island nation almost 50,000 years ago. This long duration also provided much time for the languages to develop in the country. Besides, the migration of a large number of peoples from different parts of the world to the nation also helped in building a natural ecosystem for developing linguistic diversity. All the above factors, over the centuries, have played an essential role in making Indonesia a linguistically diverse nation, with a comparatively higher LDI score of 0.846.
On the other hand, Japan had been unified since the 8th century A.D. This unification resulted in the homogeneity of languages in the country. Currently, the majority of its population speaks the Tokyo dialect, which is also the official Japanese language. However, some minority groups speak Ryukyuan and Ainu languages. Japan, as a nation, remained isolated for a very long time and was opened for foreign visitors only in 19th century A.D. All these factors, together, have dramatically reduced the linguistic diversity of the nation, with an LDI score of only 0.028.
Which country is the most linguistically diverse?
(Hint for this question lies in the feature picture of this blog. The darker areas on the map are the regions with greater linguistic diversity).
Papua New Guinea, with an LDI score of 0.99, tops in the chart of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world. The country is home to a small population size of only about 8.6 million, and yet, over 851 languages are spoken there.
On the other hand, India, despite being the second-most populous nation in the world, holds the 9th position in LDI ranking, with an LDI score of 0.93. While China, with the largest population size and a score of 0.491, carries a much lower LDI rank.
Which countries have the lowest linguistic diversity?
Vatican City, North Korea, Haiti, Saint Helena, Montenegro, Cuba, South Korea, Samoa, Rwanda, and Burundi are some of the nations with either very low or no linguistic diversity whatsoever.
Moving on, despite being the critical tool for assessing the linguistic diversities of nations, LDI has its own set of challenges. Out of those, the most significant problem is identifying the distinction between dialects and languages. Dialects can sometimes be a little unintelligible in comparison with the languages and vice versa. For instance, Kurdish dialects such as Kurmanji and Sorani, even though they come from the same language family, are mutually unintelligible. On the other hand, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian, despite being different languages, are very similar to each other.
Languages are fragile and an inseparable part of the culture of any country. As per an estimate, most of the native languages we speak today could become extinct or endangered by 2051. Therefore, it is our responsibility to promote and, at the same time, preserve these valuable pieces of our cultural heritage.
Note: Observations made in this blog are according to UNESCO’s 2009 rankings of countries by their LDI.